Classical Education – The Tools of Learning

At Ad Fontes Academy, an accredited member of the Association of Classical and Christian Schools (ACCS), we use a historic classical educational approach based on a Christ-centered worldview to teach the foundations of Christian faith and tradition and the tools of learning, thinking, and expression through the liberal arts.

Ad fontes is a Latin expression which means “to the sources” (literally “to the fountain”). It is historically associated with the renewed study of Greek and Latin classics, and the return to the Bible as the primary source of Christian faith. The idea in both cases is that sound knowledge depends on the earliest and most fundamental sources.

This unity of Christian faith and tradition and the classical model of education, applied to our day, is the distinctive core of an Ad Fontes education. It is an education that shapes character and virtue without neglecting intelligence and wisdom.

The goal of a classical education is to teach students how to learn for themselves by equipping them with the tools of learning. Early emphasis is placed upon core knowledge and skills, followed by formal instruction in logic and rhetoric while developing clear verbal and written styles of expression in each subject. The 1947 speech “The Lost Tools of Learning” by Dorothy Sayers captured this vision and inspired its recovery in the last 25 years.

The teaching of the seven liberal arts (the Trivium and Quadrivium) formed the educational foundation of Western culture until the radical curriculum changes and modern educational theories of the past 75 years. Ad Fontes Academy is committed to recovering the educational method upon which the achievements of Western culture were founded.

The Trivium emphasizes three important sets of skills that have been largely ignored in the last century:

  • The “grammar” of each subject: the core knowledge one needs to know about each area of study
  • Logical thinking skills: the ability to ask the right questions and draw proper conclusions
  • Rhetorical skills: the ability to speak and write clearly, gracefully, and persuasively

While we focus on all these skills throughout their years at Ad Fontes, there are particular stages of students’ development when it is time to teach them formally and more intensively.

Thus, in the Lower (Grammar) School, students begin by learning the fundamental facts of each subject and establishing those important links between symbols and concepts in math and reading. Teaching methods which students at this age enjoy, such as singing, drilling, chanting, and recitation are emphasized. In addition to those pedagogical practices, teachers cultivate the tools of thinking through the use of metaphors, categories, and questions which are essential for developing the formative skills of thought and language. The best practices in the past, even at early ages, centered around two methods: dialectic (the asking of purposeful questions) and didactic (providing illustrations, models and types for the students to contemplate).

For example, before the teacher invests time in getting a child to recite or mimic the answer, the she spends time with the child over questions that lead to those answers. In addition, while the teachers assist students in gaining specific knowledge and help them develop thinking skills, they also help them to see that knowledge in the context of a broader whole. The student should not merely be able to identify the parts of speech, but also appreciate the sentence as a whole – seeing the beauty of language. From Kindergarten– where students learn to make their simple sentences more beautiful by adding descriptive phrases—to 4th and 5th grades where classical composition is taught, students are engaged in learning to write and express themselves well.

In the Middle (Logic) School at Ad Fontes, the dialectic and didactic methods take on a greater emphasis as students have established foundational knowledge and skills. Students are taught how to analyze, reason, question, evaluate, and critique. Logic, the art of arguing correctly, is taught as a core subject.

In the High (Rhetoric) School at Ad Fontes, students learn more formally how to express what they know and what they are learning. Rhetoric, the art of expression, is taught as a core subject. Debate, apologetics, speech, essay writing, and drama are emphasized during this stage. The rhetoric stage is built on a foundation of accumulated knowledge and logical skills. Each student will complete a Senior Thesis in order to graduate from Ad Fontes. This year-long research project brings together Christian faith, logical thinking and rhetorical skill in defending an opinion on a critical issue of our day. Students are prepared to begin to specialize and pursue deeper study in mathematics, the natural sciences, humanities, philosophy and theology.

We believe this education benefits students of varied academic abilities, not just the student with exceptional intellectual gifts. The teaching methods are geared to meet students where they are and challenge them to their best work. Students with a stronger bent towards analytical or conceptual will all benefit from the classical approach.

The Lost Tools of Learning by Dorothy Sayers

Introduction to Classical Education by Dr. Christopher Perrin